What do you get when you combine John Ashcroft, Israel, the South Korean
military and Boeing? A troubling weapons deal.
Israel's major aerospace company hired former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's
lobbying firm late last month to help secure the U.S. government's approval
to sell a weapons system to the South Korean Air Force, according to lobbying
The South Koreans are choosing between an early-warning radar system built
by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and a similar, more expensive system built
by Chicago-based Boeing Co. The radar systems enhance an air force's ability
to track enemy fighter jets during combat.
U.S. law requires Israel, and any other country seeking to resell American
military technology, to secure approval from the Department of State's Directorate
of Defense Trade Controls. That agency can also consult with the Pentagon on
whether to issue an export license. A State Department spokesman declined to
Boeing already has the U.S. government's approval.
The South Koreans initially had intended to make a decision by Dec. 31, but
the government told the companies last month that it would delay its final decision
until May 2006, which gives the Israeli company an additional four months to
get the U.S. government's blessing.
Boeing officials based in Seoul, South Korea, expressed disappointment with
the four-month delay in news reports in that country and Israel. The Jerusalem
Post reported last month that Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to South
Korea, met with the South Korean defense minister and pushed for Boeing. The
$1 billion deal has garnered little attention in the U.S. media and in Congress.
In 2005, Boeing contributed $642,877 to Republican and Democratic lawmakers'
political action committees and campaign committees, according to politicalmoneyline.com.
The firm reported spending $4.9 million on lobbying in 2004.
A spokesman for Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who traditionally aids Boeing because
the company has a large presence in his district, said he was not aware of the
sale and had not been contacted by Boeing on the matter. Spokespeople for Speaker
Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Washington Democratic Sens.
Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell did not return calls for comment.
South Korea, the world's 11th largest economy, has been investing heavily in
its military in recent years. The U.S. ally has developed its own fighter plane
and battle tank and launched an aircraft carrier, destroyers and submarines,
said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, an intelligence research company.
"The [surveillance] technology makes a tremendous difference whether you
have airplanes like this," Pike said, adding that not having the system
is like having a "football team without a coach and captain. It is night-and-day
in terms of efficiency and effectiveness of air power. Any serious, self-respecting
country wants them or wants to get them."
The Ashcroft Group and IAI signed a nondisclosure agreement, said spokeswoman
Juleanna Glover Weiss, and IAI officials based in D.C. and Tel Aviv said the
company does not comment on its consultants. Ashcroft has built a lucrative
lobbying practice since starting last summer. Public records also show that
Oracle; ChoicePoint, a company that sells data to police and federal law-enforcement
agencies; and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants have hired
Public records do not disclose how much IAI is paying Ashcroft. The records
show that IAI also hired Morris Amitay for $20,000. "I am not going to
comment," Amitay said, referring to questions about the potential deal
to IAI's office in Arlington, Va.
While it is not unusual for foreign governments to hire Washington lobbyists
to navigate the executive-branch bureaucracy, Congress has a record of inserting
itself into commercial transactions, especially when national-security issues
are concerned. For example, the House overwhelmingly passed two resolutions
last year encouraging the Bush administration to stop a potential merger between
a Chinese oil company and Unocal, a U.S. oil company.
Israel has come under criticism from the U.S. government for selling arms to
countries hostile to the United States, such as China and South Africa. In 2000,
pressure from the Clinton administration and Congress stopped Israel from selling
its Phalcon radar system to the Chinese.
"Past Israeli behavior does not inspire confidence," said Loren Thompson
of the Lexington Institute, adding that past actions could spark Congressional
The United States suspended cooperation with Israel last year on some long-term
military projects after Israel announced plans to sell China spare parts for
Harpy Drone unmanned aerial vehicles. The United States and Israel signed a
memorandum of understanding in August to regulate future arms sales between
Israel and other countries.
Boeing has sold its surveillance system to the Australian and Turkish governments,
said a D.C.-based Boeing official, who declined further comment. Last year,
the Israelis sold the Phalcon system to India's air force, and, previously,
they sold the Phalcon system to the Chilean air force.
The United States approved $22.4 billion in licenses to sell arms in 2004;
Israel accounted for $1.33 billion in sales. Japan and Great Britain were the
largest buyers of U.S. weapons, according to a State Department report.
Jonathan E. Kaplan is a staff reporter for The Hill.